by Chandramohan Nair
On a warm July afternoon, the students of class 9A at St Joseph’s High School waited expectantly in their classroom. The day had been tiring but the boys looked surprisingly cheerful. This was a class they looked forward to. Soon a portly man of middle age lumbered in. He received a rousing ovation with a chorus of “Bonjour, Monsieur le Professeur!” ringing out loud. He was their French teacher, Monsieur Madhavin. His original name was Madhavan. He had made the change in name soon after graduation to give it a suitably Gallic flavour.
He had a head of generous proportions and a melancholic face. Planting himself in the middle of the room, near the front row, he surveyed the class with just a hint of a smile. The appellation Monsieur le Professeur pleased him no end.
He greeted the class, “Bonjour, mes enfants. La classe commence.”
It was uttered in a halting monotone. Without further ado, he proceeded to read out the lesson for the day in the same depressing vein. The lesson was about the seasons of the year and touched upon the French summer, the Indian monsoon, the colours of the seasons and the clothes one wore during different seasons. But even the brightest student would have had a daunting time deciphering any of these topics from the good professeur’s drone.
But it didn’t seem to matter. The course textbook was attractively designed and the students in the front rows sat immersed in their books. They were additionally armed with the textbook guide and could afford to completely ignore their teacher. The boys in the middle and the two back rows presented a different spectacle. Some read novels and comics. Others were enjoying what they thought was a well-deserved siesta. A few, in pursuit of stronger stimulation, played tic-tac-toe.
Monsieur Madhavin was cognizant of all the goings-on. He did not find anything amiss. He had been following this teaching routine for the past twenty years with satisfactory results. The bright front-benchers would study on their own. The rest of the class would comfortably get the minimum pass marks with the help of some last-minute cramming and generous internal assessment marks. French being a third language, neither the school nor the parents were particularly bothered about performance.
In the midst of this contented setting, however, there sat one tense and anxious boy. Rahul could never have imagined that a French class could make him so uneasy. He was fluent in French, having studied for a few years in a French-speaking country before joining St Joseph’s, and had looked forward to renewing his acquaintance with the language.
But as soon as Monsieur Madhavin had started his class in June, Rahul realised it was going to be an ordeal sitting through the French period. The Professeur’s gloomy appearance aside, it was his singularly uninspiring method of teaching and his peculiar way of pronouncing some French words that had Rahul bored and bemused. He knew that he too would have to find other ways of occupying himself during the French period.
So during the next class, Rahul, the diligent student that he was, kept himself busy revising some of his Mathematics portions. All was well until Rahul caught himself listening to the Professeur explaining the French prepositions au-dessus de (above) and au-dessous de (below). The explanation was correct except that he had got the prepositions mixed up. A bright front-bencher brought the error to the professeur’s notice. Monsieur Madhavin’s face assumed a sheepish expression but instead of graciously accepting his mistake he squarely reprimanded the boy stating that he had heard him wrong.
At this point, Rahul found the exchange to be so comical that he let out a loud giggle. The attention of Monsieur Madhavin and the whole class turned suddenly to him. Giggling was not a common occurrence in class 9A.
“What is the matter, boy?” asked Professeur Madhavin, thankful for the distraction.
“Just a bad cough, sir,” said Rahul.
The class tittered. They had never heard a cough that sounded so much like a giggle. The professeur looked at Rahul intently. He decided he would give him the benefit of the doubt. Rahul had two more coughing episodes during the period but these were better disguised and did not invite censure. The back-benchers sensed that they were onto something interesting.
The next few classes were miserable for Rahul. The class was now well aware of the sentiments Professeur Madhavin evoked in him. The back-benchers put aside their French-period pastimes and were now single-mindedly focused on provoking Rahul into a coughing fit. If he looked at them they would make faces remarkably resembling that of the Professeur. Rahul tried burying his head into his study material but to no avail. Folded papers containing delightful cartoons of the professeur arrived at his desk at regular intervals. At other times the mimicry artists in the class faithfully reproduced Monsieur Madhavin’s monotone in loud whispers. There was no respite and the frequency of his coughing bouts increased.
Monsieur Madhavin fully understood what was going on. He realised that not only his time-tested teaching routine but also his reputation was under threat. He knew that Rahul was fluent in French and thought well about him. But he could not allow things to drift. During the next few classes when he felt that things were going out of control he told Rahul to excuse himself for the remainder of the class. It was not a durable solution, but it bought him some time.
Finally, on this July afternoon, Monsieur Madhavin was ready with a permanent fix to the problem. Halfway through the period which was around the time the fun normally started, he surprised the class with an announcement.
“Boys, the Principal, Father Thomas, wants to meet all of you to convey some important news. Rahul, can you go to the Principal’s room and let him know that we are ready and waiting?”
Rahul’s head went into a spin. He never imagined that the Professeur would escalate the matter to the Principal. The rest of the class wore anxious faces too. This was quite unexpected, and they wondered about the likely fall-out for Rahul and the back-benchers.
Rahul, still in a tizzy, knocked on the Principal’s door.
“Come in. You must be Rahul, I was expecting you,” said Father Thomas. The bright and loud voice went well with his large frame and cheerful face.
Rahul walked in meekly and tried to mumble an apology, but he was incoherent.
“You seem to be under some stress, my boy. But you’ll feel better once I make the announcement,” said the Principal.
“Monsieur Madhavin briefed me about you and I agreed to his unusual recommendation. No doubt it will come as a surprise to you and the class but the experience will do you a world of good,” he continued.
Father Thomas had a great sense of humour, thought Rahul.
He steeled himself. A public reprimand followed by a suspension seemed the minimum he could expect.
“Let’s not keep the class waiting,” said the Principal and he walked briskly into 9A with Rahul in tow.
“Bonjour, mes enfants,” he boomed.
“Monsieur Madhavin is facing an unusual problem,” Father Thomas continued, looking a bit surprised that all the boys had their eyes averted.
“The French Embassy is conducting a three-week advanced program for French language teachers and your professeur has been nominated for it. This is happy news both for him and the school. Let’s give him a well-deserved round of applause,” he said, clapping vigorously.
The class joined in hesitantly, wondering where all this was leading. Monsieur Madhavin smiled benevolently. Rahul stood next to him looking much like a sacrificial lamb.
“The only problem was in finding a French teacher who could take the classes in Monsieur Madhavin’s absence. We could not find anyone till yesterday. That was when your professeur came out with a novel suggestion,” said Father Thomas.
“Boys, I am happy to introduce your new French teacher. He can speak French like a native and he will help you in revising all that has been taught so far, answer your doubts and even take a few new lessons. I want all of you to give your full support to him,” he continued, smiling.
The class wondered who the invisible French teacher was.
“Rahul, this really must be a surprise for you but it’s a great way both for you and the class to make the most of your proficiency in French. Don’t you agree?” he said, turning to Rahul.
Forty pairs of eyes looked at Rahul in absolute astonishment.
Rahul, now convinced that he was living a day-dream that could shatter at any time, nodded his head weakly and gave his classmates a wan smile.
Monsieur Madhavin beamed with contentment. He could not think of a more sobering experience than teaching a bunch of schoolboys.
It was what the French would have called ‘une solution parfaite’.
Monsieur le Professeur : Mr. Professor – A formal manner of addressing a professor
Bonjour, mes enfants : Good morning, children
La classe commence : The class begins
Une solution parfaite : A perfect solution